How the 6 Elements of Story Work in How to Train Your Dragon


One of the best ways to master story structure is to study great stories and see their structure at work. Let’s break down How to Train Your Dragon using my favorite story structure framework: the six elements of story.

Great stories are built with great story structure.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, that’s probably a familiar mantra. If this is your first article, welcome! I’m so glad you’re here. And this is a line you’ll see a lot: great stories are built on great story structure.

I say it a lot because it’s true. And because when I started to really understand story structure, everything changed for me.

It was like I was handed the keys to the kingdom. Story went from being something that felt really subjective, something that I could feel was either working or not, but I couldn’t pinpoint why, to something that followed objective patterns that I could identify and trace and strategically improve.

It completely changed the way I approached editing novels.

And I talk about story structure so much here on the blog because I know it can do the same for you, too.

When you understand story structure, when a storytelling pattern clicks for you, it unlocks everything. It empowers you to tell any story you want in a way that your readers can’t get enough of.

Story structure really is that powerful. It’s at the core of everything I do as a developmental editor.

And my favorite story structure framework is the six elements of story.

Recap: The Story Structure Series

Again, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, the six elements of story will be familiar to you. I reference them in so many articles.

And for the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep dive into the six elements to help you apply them to your stories, too.

I started off with defining each of the six elements and examining what role each one plays in a story.

I’m going to recap those definitions in a minute, but if you want to hear the full explanation, check out The 6 Essential Elements of Every Novel, Act, and Scene.

Then, I shared why I love this story structure framework so much and why I use it in every single story that I edit.

You can find out why I rely on it so heavily in this article: Why the 6 Elements of Story Are the Key to All Great Stories.

Next, I shared three ways you can apply the six elements to your story. The true power of this structure is that it’s recursive. By that, I mean that this is a structure you’ll find at every level of story: it appears in the story as a whole, it appears in each act, it appears in each scene, and more.

For more on how to apply the six elements to every level of your story, check out 3 Ways to Apply the 6 Elements of Story Structure to Your Novel.

Theory Begs for Examples

In all those articles, I’ve shared a lot of theory. But these concepts are much easier to understand when you can see them at work.

So now, I want to give you examples. I’ve chosen one of my favorite stories, and I’m going to show you how the six elements of story play out in it.

I’m going to use the movie How to Train Your Dragon as our example story. Yes, it’s a movie, but movies and novels are both long-form stories. You can learn a lot about story structure by studying movies.

And How to Train Your Dragon is a fantastically plotted movie. I’m impressed by it every time I watch it (and I’ve watched it a lot!).

Heads up, this article will be full of spoilers. But this is not a new movie; it came out in 2010. You can also go stream it, and I highly recommend that you watch it after you listen to this episode so you can see all this story structure at work. Right now, at the time when I’m publishing this article, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

Recap: Story Structure Fundamentals

All right, that’s enough preamble. Let’s get into story structure and how it works in How to Train Your Dragon.

The 6 Elements of Story

First up, let’s recap the six elements of story.

  1. The inciting incident: Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the story.
  2. Progressive complications: The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.
  3. The turning point: The largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
  4. The crisis: In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).
  5. The climax: The moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.
  6. The resolution: The “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the story began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.

Value Shifts

And while we’re recapping ideas, let me mention one more important story structure concept: the value shift.

Stories are about change. Things are one way at the beginning of a story and they’re another way at the end of the story.

The value shift is essentially the thing that changes. And the six elements of story are the journey that we take from the starting state to the ending state.

If the term “value shift” is new to you, don’t worry. I have a full article on value shifts: Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story. And the example story I use in that article is also How to Train Your Dragon, so it’s a great companion to this article.

So that’s our story structure: the value shift and six elements we’ll look for throughout How to Train Your Dragon.

Example: How to Train Your Dragon

Now, let’s get into our example and see them at work!

In case you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the premise:

A scrawny young Viking boy whose community is frequently attacked by dragons wants to prove that he’s a true Viking by killing a dragon.

What Changes in How to Train Your Dragon?

First off, what changes in How to Train Your Dragon? What’s the value shift?

It might seem a little odd to start here, especially if you haven’t seen the movie. But I want to start by mentioning the value shifts so you can keep them in mind as we talk through the six elements of the story.

Here are the three most important value shifts I see in the story:

At the beginning of the movie, Vikings are in constant danger, always living with the threat of another dragon attack. At the end, they’re safe.

At the beginning of the story, Hiccup is shamed for his un-Viking-like traits. At the end, he’s honored for those same traits.

And at the beginning of the story, Hiccup cannot kill a dragon. At the end, he has succeeded in killing a dragon—just one, the one that threatened everyone.

Danger to safety.

Shame to honor.

Failure to success.

Keep those values in mind as we walk through the story structure. Remember, the six elements are the process that will get us from the starting values to the ending values.

The 6 Elements in the Story as a Whole

Ready to see the six elements in action? Let’s dive in!

Inciting Incident

First up, the inciting incident: Hiccup doesn’t kill a dragon.

At the beginning of the movie, Hiccup feels out of place among the Vikings. They look down at him as weak and useless because he can’t help defend the community from constant dragon attacks. So he tries to prove himself by killing a dragon.

He builds a clever machine to shoot a dragon out of the sky. He shoots down the dragon. He hikes through the woods until he finds it, downed but still alive. He raises his knife to kill it . . .

. . . and he can’t.

Much as he wants to, much as he knows that killing this dragon is his ticket to status as a Viking, he cannot bring himself to kill it. He turns from the tradition and expectations of his community and frees the dragon instead.

Progressive Complications

Next, the progressive complications.

There are a lot of things that I could mention as progressive complications—if I wanted, I could list out every problem Hiccup encounters in the movie from the moment he frees Toothless the dragon to the end of the third act.

But I don’t need to list everything that happens in the movie here. I’ve narrowed it all down to five core events. Here they are:

First, Hiccup bonds with Toothless, the dragon he freed. He’s not just chosen not to kill a dragon—he’s now interacting peacefully with Toothless, working to earn Toothless’s trust.

Next, Hiccup gains status among the Vikings. As he spends time with Toothless, he learns about dragons, how they think and how to act around them. Then, when he’s among the Vikings, his secret, specialized knowledge of dragons helps him rise to the top of the class in dragon training, where he’s training with other Viking teens to kill dragons. His unprecedented skill earns him the admiration and respect of the Viking community.

Then, Hiccup wins the honor of killing a dragon. Because he’s top of his class, he’s granted the honor of killing his first dragon in front of the entire community. This is a huge deal—it’s a sign that the Vikings are respecting and valuing him now, which is what he’s wanted from the very beginning. But he knows he can’t bring himself to kill a dragon, so this is also a major problem for him.

Next, Hiccup changes a Viking’s mind and gains an ally. Astrid, Hiccup’s rival classmate, discovers Hiccup training with Toothless and threatens to reveal this betrayal of everything the Vikings stand for to their whole community. But Hiccup shows her how he and Toothless have bonded, and she changes her mind and supports his choice to make peace with dragons rather than kill them. This is a great development for Hiccup: now he has an ally, and not only that, he has proof that it’s possible for Vikings to change what they believe about dragons.

And the last plot point I’ve marked as a progressive complication is this: Toothless takes Hiccup to the dragon nest and reveals the true threat to dragons, the giant dragon in the nest that controls them. All this time, in the background, Hiccup’s dad, Stoic, has been searching for the dragon nest so he can destroy all the dragons once and for all. And Toothless reveals to Hiccup where it is and how to get there—and that inside the nest, there’s a dragon more powerful than any Viking has imagined, an enemy of Vikings and dragons alike.

Some of these progressive complications are good for Hiccup. Some of them are bad for him. Some are good for him in the moment, but spiral into problems later on.

All these progressive complications raise the stakes and make the situation more complicated. And that leads us to the turning point.

Turning Point

Up to this point, Hiccup’s been able to hold things together. He has his Viking community who now admire and respect him, and he has this bond with Toothless that keeps growing stronger.

Yes, he’s had some close calls with nearly getting found out by Vikings or eaten by the giant dragon, and the situation has gotten a little precarious, but he’s holding it together.

And then comes the day when Hiccup is to kill a dragon in front of the entire community.

He’s got a plan: when he’s down in the ring, facing the dragon he’s meant to kill, he tries to demonstrate to the Vikings that this dragon—and all dragons—don’t have to be killed; they can be trained instead.

But his community—his father—won’t hear of it. They reject him. Worse, the Vikings capture Toothless and force him to lead them to the dragon nest.

Rather than changing his community’s mind, Hiccup loses everything and watches the Vikings sail away on a doomed mission to destroy all dragons.

So this is our turning point, the ball of fire that drops into Hiccup’s life and forces him to a crisis decision:

When Hiccup publicly refuses to kill a dragon, the Vikings reject him from their community, capture Toothless, and embark on a doomed mission to destroy all dragons.


At this point, Hiccup has lost everything. He’s failed on every level—failed to protect Toothless, failed to change the Vikings’ minds, and sent them all off to a fight they can’t win with no way for Hiccup to follow them.

What will he do now?

This is his crisis.

The crisis is a binary choice in which both options have consequences. Here’s how I frame Hiccup’s crisis choice:

Attempt to kill an invincible dragon in order to rescue his community?


Accept that he cannot and allow his community to be slaughtered?

Do you hear the consequences in each option?

OPTION ONE: Search for a means of transportation he doesn’t have, follow the Vikings who rejected him to a battle they can’t win, and attempt to kill a dragon for the first time ever—and not just any dragon, but this unfathomably powerful beast that not even the strongest Vikings can defeat?

The risk here is death. Hiccup could die during any part of this plan. He’ll also have to face the community who rejected him, which is a painful prospect (though less terrible than the risk of Hiccup dying). And he’ll finally have to kill a dragon, the one thing he’s refused to do this whole time.

If he succeeds, though, he might just be able to save everyone and prove to the Vikings that a better relationship with the dragons is possible.

OPTION TWO: Accept that he has failed, accept his limitations, don’t follow the Vikings to the nest, and wait to see if anyone comes back?

The risk here is also death—but not Hiccup’s. The good part of this plan is that Hiccup will be safe in the village.

But he knows the Vikings and Toothless will almost certainly perish. No one is coming back, and if he stays and does nothing, he’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life.

Option one is such a long shot, it’s nearly impossible. But option two is unacceptable.

I love this scene in the movie because it’s so wonderfully visual. Hiccup stands on a cliff watching the Viking ships disappear over the horizon. Astrid comes up to him and lists out all his failures. He despairs.

We feel the weight of this crisis, the stakes it holds. We see how absolutely impossible it is for him to follow the Vikings. It seems like there’s nothing Hiccup can do. He tried, he failed, and there’s nothing left.

And when Astrid interrogates him, his responses reflect that lack of agency. She asks why he didn’t kill Toothless when he first found him.

At first, he says he couldn’t. But when she presses him, he says,

“I was a coward. I was weak. I wouldn’t kill a dragon.”

She says, “You said ‘wouldn’t’ that time.”

And he defends his choice. Up to this point, he has actively chosen not to kill a dragon. He looked at Toothless and saw himself, and he has chosen ever since to protect, not kill.

And then Astrid asks him what he’s going to do next.

He’s reminded of what he cares about: Toothless, and the humanity he sees in all the Vikings. He’s reminded of his agency: that he has not killed a dragon because he has chosen not to do so, not because he is an un-Viking-like coward. And he’s reminded of his assets: he is the first Viking to ride a dragon. He can do things no other Viking has ever done before. He can form a plan no Viking has ever formed.

Will Hiccup attempt to kill an invincible dragon in order to rescue his community? Or will he accept that he cannot and allow his community to be slaughtered?

When it comes down to it, this choice echoes the same choice he’s faced from the very beginning: kill a dragon or not?

Hiccup runs off to take action. Which leads us to the climax.


Remember, the climax is the point when the protagonist takes action on their crisis choice. It’s where we see what they’re choosing and what the consequences of that choice are.

Hiccup chooses to follow the Vikings to the nest and fight the battle only he and Toothless can fight.

He and his classmates from dragon training mount the captive dragons they’d fought in class. They fly out to the nest, where the Vikings are under attack and losing badly. Hiccup frees Toothless with Stoic’s help.

And then Hiccup and Toothless fly up to battle the giant dragon themselves.

I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen this movie, and this scene still gives me chills. Hiccup, maligned by the Vikings, belittled and ignored, considered weak and un-Viking-like, flying into the clouds on Toothless’s back, literally the only person with the skills and heart and dragon bond that it will take to defeat this enemy of unfathomable power.

And they succeed.

Which makes this our climax: Hiccup and Toothless kill the giant dragon, the greatest threat to both Vikings and dragons.


And that brings us to the resolution. What’s the new world order after Hiccup and Toothless defeat the giant dragon?

Hiccup wakes up back in his home. And when he opens the door and goes outside, Toothless at his side, he discovers that the world has transformed.

The village is full of dragons. All over town, Vikings are flying on their backs. When they see Hiccup, everyone flocks to him. They celebrate and honor him and tell him that it was him they needed all along.

And then Hiccup and his friends mount their dragons and fly around Berk for fun. Dragons are no longer pests, enemies to be destroyed. Now, they’re pets, friends who live harmoniously with the Vikings.

And so the resolution of this story is that now, Vikings and dragons live together in peace.

Summary: The 6 Elements in How to Train Your Dragon

So there you have it: all six elements of story, mapped out across the full movie.

And remember the value shifts? When you add the value shifts to the six elements, this becomes a map of transformation. Things start one way, they end another way, and these six elements are the way we get from start to finish.

Here are the value shifts we’re watching:

  • Danger to safety
  • Shame to honor
  • Failure to success

And here are those six elements again:

Inciting incident: Hiccup doesn’t kill a dragon.

Progressive complications: Hiccup bonds with Toothless. Hiccup gains status among the Vikings for his skill in dragon training. Hiccup wins the honor of killing a dragon. Hiccup changes a Viking’s mind and gains an ally. Toothless takes Hiccup to the dragon nest and reveals the true threat to dragons, the giant dragon in the nest that controls them.

Turning point: When Hiccup publicly refuses to kill a dragon, the Vikings reject him from their community, capture Toothless, and embark on a doomed mission to destroy all dragons.

Crisis: Attempt to kill an invincible dragon in order to rescue his community, or accept that he cannot and allow his community to be slaughtered?

Climax: Hiccup and Toothless kill the giant dragon, the greatest threat to both Vikings and dragons.

Resolution: Vikings and dragons live together in peace.

We start in danger, and we end in safety. We start in shame and we end in honor. We start in failure and end in success.

It’s such a good story.

Your Turn: Find the 6 Elements in How to Train Your Dragon

I hope this close study of How to Train Your Dragon, this look at the six elements in action, helps you see how this story structure really works. Theory is great, but there’s no substitute for examples where you can see it in action.

And if you’d like even more examples, I have good news for you.

Remember how the six elements of story are recursive? How you can find them on every level of story—the whole story, the acts, the scenes, and more?

In this article, we’ve looked at the big picture, the story as a whole. But coming up in the next article, I’ll be zooming in to look at the six elements of the first act of How to Train Your Dragon.

You’ll get another example of the six elements at work. And you’ll get to see what it looks like when they next.

If you want to test your knowledge of the six elements, I recommend that you go watch How to Train Your Dragon. See if you can spot everything we’ve looked at in this episode.

And then challenge yourself: can you find the six elements in the first act?

If you take me up on this challenge, send me an email with the six elements you come up with. Email me at I’ll tell you how close your answers are to mine.

And then next week, I’ll be back on the blog with my answers, so you can see how I break down the first act using the six elements of story.

Seriously, email me your answers. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Plus, it means you get to watch How to Train Your Dragon, which is always a treat, and probably my favorite part of putting together all this analysis.

I’ll see you back here next week with the next part of our analysis. Until then, happy editing!

Find Out How to Edit Your Novel

Editing your book doesn't have to be overwhelming. Enter your email, and I'll send you my free, 10-step guide to editing a book.

Awesome! Now go check your email for your guide!